Last weekend I took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to explore the temporary exhibit on view until January 29th, 2012, Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures. The exhibit features more than 100 sculptures from different parts of Africa and highlight different peoples traditions and artistic techniques. The Met is pleased that the exhibit challenges conventional perceptions of African art and engages viewers – I would have to agree. As I walked through the exhibit I was overwhelmed (in a good way) with the amount of art I was seeing. Most impressive was the variety; every piece was significantly different. The exhibit is organized based on eight regions, and boasts pieces from as early as the 12th century to photographs taken last year.
|Queen Mother Pendant Mask|
When I first walked in, my attention was drawn to sculptures by the Benin peoples in Nigeria. Although photography was prohibited, most of the artworks are featured on the Metropolitan Museums website. The first piece I saw was the “Queen Mother Pendant Mask”, made by the Oba peoples in Nigeria. The mask dates to the 16th century and is made of ivory, copper, and iron. According to the Met website, the mask was “made for King or ‘Oba’ Esigie, the king of Benin, to honor his mother, Idia. The Oba may have worn it at rites commemorating his mother, although today such pendants are worn at annual ceremonies of spiritual renewal and purification.”
|Head of an Oba|
Another piece by the Oba peoples entitled “Head of an Oba,” made of brass and dates to the 17th century. This particular style of sculpture was created to commemorate the Benin peoples rulers. This sculpture would have been placed upon an altar at the palace of the king of Oba, so as to never forget the importance and of past and present rulers. The Met explains, “The altar constitutes an important site of palace ritual and is understood to be a means of incorporating the ongoing influence of past kings in the affairs of their descendents.” The detail in the piece is extraordinary and looks like it weighs a ton!
|Altar to the Hand of Ezomo Ehenua|
One of my favorite pieces from the collection was the brass sculpture “Altar to the Hand of Ezomo Ehenua (Ikegobo)” from the 18th century sculpted by the Benin peoples. The sculpture is very detailed and is said to illustrate “the accomplishments of exceptional individuals.” The idea behind this sculpture is a to present your hand with honor — as it has helped you gain wealth. The Met explains that “The hand is associated with action and productivity, and is considered the source of wealth, status, and success for all those who depend on manual skill and physical strength.” The sculpture shows Benin people doing different tasks using their hand - which turns out to be a very important aspect of Benin culture. Depending on the status of the person who commissioned the sculpture, it could have been made out of different mediums, like terracotta, brass, or wood. I find it interesting that class has a distinct effect on the artwork found in Nigeria among the Benin tribes.
The exhibit features works by other tribes from other parts of Africa, like Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. The different areas used different elements to create their artworks. In Cameroon, it was not uncommon to find wood, beads, leather, string, and human hair among the art works. Raffia, metals, and pigments were also commonly used in the fabrication of various artworks.
The Met selected a wonderful variety of artworks from Africa to display for this exhibit. Every piece was different and the information provided was thoughtful and engaging. I would recommend this exhibit to anyone who has an interest in African art or culture in general. The history behind the artworks is interesting and made me realize that art varies throughout Africa just as much as the people and traditions do. I hope that if you find yourself at the Met before the end of January that you will pass by the Heroic Africans exhibit. You will not be disappointed.